Leo’s Jan. 22 amendments to the Texas Science TEKS

The version of the Texas TEKS science standards approved by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) on January 23 included several amendments that it added January 22, amending the revised TEKS standards that were recommended by the writing teams of scientists and science educators. SBOE chairman McLeroy’s amendments, and his quote-mining to trick the other SBOE members into voting for those amendments, has received most of the attention, along with the amendments introduced by Barbara Cargill to the Earth and Space Science standards.

Less attention has been paid to five amendments introduced by Terri Leo (click here for a 2-page pdf file with original language, amendments, and SBOE members’ votes). Leo’s amendments substituted “analyze and evaluate” in place of words like “recognize” and “describe,” so that the expectation that students will


SBOE member Terri Leo

recognize that natural selection produces change in populations, not individuals

is transformed to

analyze and evaluate how natural selection produces change in populations, not individuals


describe the elements of natural selection including inherited variation, the potential of a population to produce more offspring than can survive, and a finite supply of environmental resources resulting in differential reproductive success


analyze and evaluate how the elements of natural selection including inherited variation, the potential of a population to produce more offspring than can survive, and a finite supply of environmental resources results in differential reproductive success

What is this about? Here is a ten-minute audio clip of the complete segment of the Board meeting in which Leo’s amendments were presented, explained, and passed.

Leo explains (at 02:45) that her argument for these changes is that “analyze and evaluate” is a “higher thinking skill” compared with “recognize,” “describe,” or “identify,” which she is replacing with her “stronger wording.”

Leo invokes Benjamin Bloom’s “taxonomy of educational objectives” in support of her amendments. Her use of the taxonomy is a perfect example of what’s wrong with how it’s often used. Bloom’s Taxonomy (or his “Taxology,” as Leo said initially) is commonly used as a source for lists of verbs like the ones Leo is fussing about, arranged in categories of higher and lower cognitive objectives. In schools across the country, teachers are expected to submit lesson plans with learning objectives defined using those verbs. Supervisors (e.g., school principals, etc.) can then quickly glance over the verbs in those statements of objectives to see if there’s enough “higher order thinking” going on, or if students are engaged too much in only lower order thinking.

The problem is that these verbs become fetishized, as magic words that somehow in themselves conjure up the higher order thinking — as if the level or quality of thinking will be determined by what verbs have been used in the state standards or the teacher’s lesson plan. Given how much SBOE members referred to the “verbage” in their discussion of the science TEKS, we might think of this as a kind of “verbage voodoo” — nowhere near as subtle as the “enchantment by our language” that Ludwig Wittgenstein warned us about.

(My favorite example, in my own experience, is a lesson plan that called for students to “hypothesize the names of the first five Presidents of the United States” — “hypothesize” being in the category of cognitive “synthesis,” one of Bloom’s highest levels — as opposed to just “listing” the five names, which would be merely “knowledge,” or the lowest level.)

The choice of verbs in a statement of lesson objectives, or (in the case of TEKS) “student expectations” in the state standards, can be a way of indicating a target for classroom or curriculum planning. But you can’t tell from that language what students will be doing or learning without the planning for their learning experiences and assessment of success. Suppose, for example, a standards statement says that students “will be able to analyze the causes of the Civil War.” If they are given a textbook section to read that supplies them with a list of causes of the Civil War, and then they’re given a test that asks them to write a short essay in which they “analyze the causes of the Civil War,” and if that’s all the information that they have to work with, then there’s simply nothing they can do with that other than to regurgitate the “analysis” that they were given in the text.

When subject matter experts and teachers engage in the development of standards (as, for example, the TEKS writing teams have done in Texas) they deliberate over which items call for — and furnish opportunities for — students to engage in analysis, interpretation, evaluation, etc., and which items will be identified as things that students should be able to “describe” or “recognize.” Such deliberation requires thinking about the actual learning experiences that would be possible, and the student performances that would be used to assess whether the targeted level of student learning has been actually attained.

But hey! Why can’t we give them a break — why not give SBOE the benefit of the doubt, here? Isn’t it possible that they understood what they were doing, and they were just leaving it up to professionals at the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to work out the implications for student learning activities, and for classroom and state-level assessments?

I see a couple reasons for not giving their actions this charitable interpretation: For one thing, just look at what they did! Look, for example, at the first of the two amendments displayed above: What kind of “analysis and evaluation” could students possible perform when it comes to “natural selection [producing] change in populations, not individuals”? Is there evidence they could be given for an evaluation of the alternative, i.e. an alternative in which natural selection might produce change in  individuals? There can’t even be a question here of anything to analyze or evaluate, since the idea of natural selection producing change in  individuals is simply, and totally, unintelligible. It makes no possible sense. The very idea of natural selection is an idea of something happening with populations. That’s so much built into the concept itself, that there’s no intelligible way that “change in individuals” could even be thought of as being produced by natural selection.

In other words, this is a simple fact about the basic meaning of the concept of “natural selection” — something that must be recognized for anyone to understand what natural selection is, but a fact (about the meaning of the concept) that simply is not open to being analyzed and evaluated; it’s just the fact of of this concept being the concept that it  is.

My second reason for not giving SBOE the benefit of the doubt on this — the possibility, that is, that they might have understood what they were doing, but were just passing this on to the TEA to work out the implications — is that I have listened to that ten minutes of audio (linked above). Listen for yourself, and see if you hear any sign of the slightest glimmer of awareness, or the slightest sign of thoughtfulness toward these amendments. “Higher thinking skills,” indeed!

If you’re wondering about the ungrammatical wording of the amendment that was passed ( “analyze and evaluate how the elements …  results in …” [instead of “elements … result in …”]), this was a deliberate change proposed by Lowe ( “as long as you’re going to correct the grammar” [at 09:35, after the amendment had been voted on]), accepted by Leo as a friendly amendment, and accepted without objection by the Board. It’s a good thing they have TEA staff who can clean up that sort of thing.

As another famous Texan has reminded us, good grammar is important:

note: the video that was embedded below was Bush asking “Is our children learning.?” That video has been removed from YouTube. When I get a chance, I’ll add an audio of that. For now, I’m adding below the first (dead) one a video of Bush saying that “childrens do learn.”

Click here for audio of the January 22 SBOE meetings.

Click here for audio of the January 21 hearings.

Click here for audio of the hearings November 19, 2008.

One Comment

  1. Posted March 6, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    He he. It reminds me of the staff meeting my science department just had discussing the key verbs to put into our daily objectives. It really has become about the language, and not what the language represents. (Putting “higher order” verbs in doesn’t make the objective higher order. The CONTENT must demand higher order thinking, as well as the verb used to describe the objective.)

    The objection I have to these amendments is that “descrive” and “evaluate” are two very, very different things, and one cannot do the latter without demonstrating that they can do the former. One cannot evaluate or judge the theory of natural selection without having described it first because one cannot evaluate what one does not know (indicated by ability to describe).

    There is a huge push towards higher order thought in curriculum and, while that is certainly a good thing, it is being overdone at the expense of “lower order” teaching of facts and knowledge. The way I always describe it to my over-eager mentors (infatuated with Bloom’s taxonomy) is that one cannot write the paper (evaluate) until one does the research (describe).

    But it is quite obvious that all of this is irrelevent here, as “evaluate” is a euphemism for “reject.”

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